Don’t mind the gnawing sense of dread that comes with reading California author John Zic’s chilling Fabulist debut, “A Secret Mother.” It’s an immersive narrative of two teenagers on a certain sort of road trip — and a nerve-wracking spiral into their sociopathic alternate reality.
Sometimes when they were driving Ginny wore Beech’s cap, but only when he let her. She would position the cap at harsh angles and make funny faces. Beech would laugh, ruffle her hair or squeeze her earlobe. Other times, she wore the cap turned inside out, though Beech didn’t like that. And sometimes she simply stared at her reflection in the vanity mirror and wished that the embroidered patch above the cap’s visor was the profile of a man she might meet, someone who wanted to make a family, who wasn’t always running away from trouble, someone the opposite of Beech.
Ginny and Beech had driven all night across two states. They would still be driving if Ginny hadn’t spotted the park. She had convinced Beech to stop so they could lay on the blanket and rest. She liked this park and was glad they had found it. It was quiet except for the squeals of two children who played on a swing set across the way.
Ginny reclined next to Beech on the wool army blanket and stared into Beech’s armpit. Fungus mottled the roots of his hair. She’d grown used to Beech’s odors but she didn’t always like them. She looked away from him and admired the buckles on her shoes. She polished the buckles several times a day and even wore her shoes when she slept. She would wiggle her feet and the shine from the buckles helped her fall asleep.
Beech pried his sneakers off. Two of his toes poked through a hole in his sock. The toenail of his big toe was yellow and brown and it twisted inward at the sides. The skin around the nail bed glowed red. Ginny heard a squeal from the swing set. The little girl lay face up on a swing. The boy dangled dangerously above her, his feet kicking close to the girl’s face as he held himself up by the chains.
“I want a long, hot bath,” Ginny said.
“No place here to get a bath,” Beech said. The knife he held was sharp. Before stopping at the park, they’d bought food at an A&P market. He cut through a hunk of bologna and flipped a chunk to Ginny. Using the knife as a fork, he cut another piece, stabbed the meat into his mouth and licked the blade clean.
Ginny chewed the cold cut and counted. “One, two, three.”
“We could find a motel,” Beech said. “Or someone’s empty house.” He sat up and pressed the blade’s tip against his toe, the red skin blanching. He traced the infection until the blade rested between his toes.
Ginny kept counting. “Eleven, twelve, thirteen.”
“How much of that money is left?” He pinched Ginny’s thigh when she didn’t answer.
“Shit!” Ginny said. “You made me lose count.”
“Fifty-three dollars,” she said.
“Out of eight hundred?”
Ginny spit the bologna into her hand and threw it into a bed of weeds. “Cut me some more.”
Beech cut a chunk of bologna and handed it to her.
“Thirty-two chews is when the vitamins come out,” she said. “After that, ask me any damn question.”
She forced the meat into her mouth and counted again.
The sun was bright; she shaded her eyes and faced into the breeze, a cool caress of lilac, though there were no flowers that she could see. The park, tucked between low rise tenements only two blocks away from the A&P, offered a slide, a swing set and, opposite these, restrooms resembling a gingerbread house that plainly suffered from neglect. Milkweeds prospered in the sand lot. Worst of all, the grass hadn’t been mowed. In some patches, it grew tall; elsewhere, weeds suffocated the grass, a fight the weeds and dandelions were winning. When she had lived at home, before her and Beech had to leave, Ginny’s father and uncle had always made her mow the grass. It had been difficult to maneuver the heavy mower, but she managed it because she wanted to look tough.
Ginny reached the count of thirty-two and threw her chewed bologna into the weeds.
“You want more?” Beech asked.
“I can’t stand but one more.”
Beech tossed a chunk into the air, and as Ginny caught it in her mouth, she spotted the young man who bagged at the A&P. She pointed to the gingerbread restrooms where a flock of pigeons that pecked at the walkway meandered out of the boy’s path.
“There’s that guy from the A&P,” she said. “He’s still staring at you.”
“Shut up,” Beech said.
“He’s staring at you.”
“I said shut up.”
“I think he likes you.” She tickled Beech under his belt line.
“Cut it out,” Beech said.
“I think he’s cute. Don’t you think he’s cute?”
“Knock it off.” Beech smashed the last chunk of bologna against Ginny’s mouth. She pushed his hand away, and spit her chewed bologna into the weeds.
The young man from the A&P opened the restroom door and went in.
The pigeons stirred but stayed put.
Beech put on his sneakers and stood up. “Hold this.” He handed his cap to Ginny and walked towards the restrooms.
The cap lay low on her forehead, not quite blocking her vision. She loved that the cap was red, white, and blue because those colors reminded her of her birthdays. Her father and uncle had always celebrated her birthday on the Fourth, even though she’d been born on the tenth of July. Instead of candles, they put sparklers on her birthday cakes. Sparklers fascinated Ginny; she loved the streaks of purple and yellow that scarred the dark whenever she waved the sparklers in front of her.
On her sixteenth birthday, a sparkler burned her right hand. To help her forget the pain, her father pinched her belly. “You got a knife in you,” he said. “Should I leave it in or pull it out?” The pain grew intense. Her father had played this game for as long as she could remember. If she told him to pull the knife out, he would pull her skin and release the pinch slowly. If she told him to leave it in, he pinched harder.
Ginny fought a wave of nausea. Beech neared the restrooms, wrapped his knife inside a black handkerchief and then tucked it into his back pocket. She knew what his strut meant, how when he pushed his weight onto his toes it was meant to diminish the wiggle of his hips. When he flexed his thumbs away from his body, it was meant to make him look edgy, ready to pounce.
The pigeons hurried out of Beech’s path.
The hinges on the restroom door creaked, and the children across the park laughed. Ginny scratched her ankle, the buckle on her shoe snatching a glint of sun and blinding her for a second. She hugged her legs against her chest and pulled her large sweater over her calves, hiding her unshaved legs and her awkward knees that seemed too large. A fine layer of ash always seemed to dust the crown of her kneecaps. She had just turned eighteen but wanted to appear younger.
The two children laughed again as the boy sputtered down the slide: stop, go. Stop, go. Stop, go.
The girl had crystal blond hair that soaked up the sun. She gathered dandelions. Ginny picked up the remaining chunk of bologna and squeezed, her fingernails tearing into the soft meat.
The pigeons on the walkway in front of the restroom stopped pecking.
They raised their heads, listening.
The bologna broke apart and Ginny threw the scraps into the weeds. She cradled her hand, the same hand she’d burned two years ago, and then pressed her palm into her lap, trying to smother the phantom burn. She closed her eyes and felt herself shrinking so that the park, Beech, the restrooms, and the two children all seemed to become a tangle of shadows and shine. The burn traveled into her lap and then shot upwards into her stomach. She pushed herself to her feet and stepped across the blanket, but stumbled into a patch of milkweeds where she fell to her knees, her outstretched hand landing on a lump of chewed bologna. She tried to vomit but nothing came out. She picked herself up and walked towards the swings and the children.
But the swings were empty, the children gone, their laughter now echoes in the park. From somewhere behind her came a boy’s hollowed yell. She turned towards the gingerbread restrooms.
The pigeons scattered and took flight.
One bird flew toward her, its beak a blade, its talons outstretched.
She ran, the pigeon close, as if giving chase. It landed near a bench, and then she noticed, right there, in front of the bench, the two children engaged in a tug-of-war over the girl’s doll. The boy jerked the doll out of the girl’s grasp and pushed her into a patch of dandelions.
“Don’t hurt her.” Ginny ran to the boy and tugged at the doll’s legs.
The doll’s head broke away from the body and the boy fell backwards onto his butt. Not caring if she hurt him, Ginny grabbed the boy’s arm and pried the doll’s head from his grip. When she raised the doll’s head into the air and threatened to throw it at the boy, he stood up and ran away.
The little girl had picked herself up and was seated on the bench. The dandelions she had gathered lay next to her.
“Don’t cry,” Ginny said. She knelt in front of the girl. “We’ll tell your mommy on that bully.”
The girl cried harder. “I don’t have a mommy.”
Ginny touched the girl’s knee.
“Daddy never does anything to him.”
“Let’s fix your dolly.” Ginny gave the girl the doll body and head.
When the girl pushed the doll’s head against the body, it wouldn’t attach. Ginny tried to help but the girl shook her off and smashed the head against the body. It didn’t work.
“Fuck,” the girl said.
Ginny slapped her and then hugged her. “Oh, don’t make me do that.” Ginny let go and caressed the red handprint on the girl’s cheek. “I’ll be your mommy, okay? But don’t tell anyone. Not your daddy or anyone. Whenever anyone does something bad to you, come tell me.” She petted the girl’s head and cooed. “There now. You sure are pretty.”
The girl rocked the doll in her arms.
Ginny picked up a dandelion. “Do you like butter? If this flower makes your chin glow yellow, that means you like butter.”
“It works better with dandelions.” Ginny held the dandelion under the girl’s chin. “See, you do like butter.”
The girl grabbed the dandelion and held it up under Ginny’s chin, then chuckled.
“What’s funny?” Ginny said.
The girl moved the dandelion back and forth under Ginny’s chin. “You’re a ghost.” She wiggled the dandelion, teasing Ginny’s chin. “Ghost, ghost, ghost.”
“I’m not a ghost. Stop that.” Ginny tore the dandelion from the girl’s grasp, scooped the girl into her arms, and carried her towards the swings.
Ginny hadn’t seen Beech come out of the restrooms and hadn’t seen him cross the park to the swings. But there he was now, in front of her, swinging back and forth, pumping his legs, humping the air.
“Come sit on my lap,” he said.
Ginny turned to run away but Beech soared off the swing and grabbed her hair from behind.
“Get back here,” he said.
Ginny stood the girl on her feet and the girl ran to the swings.
“I told you not to turn my cap inside out.” He yanked the cap from Ginny’s head.
She could feel his moist breath on her ear. He let her go and she fell to her knees. It was only when she turned to look at him that she noticed spatters of blood on his pant legs and sneakers. She pressed her stomach, the nausea rising. She screeched and pulled her hair, ripping a strand out.
“What the fuck about me!” she said.
“Don’t yell,” Beech said. “Someone’ll hear.”
“I’ll yell, I’ll yell. What the fuck about me!” She bowed before him and buried her face in a patch of weeds, resisting when his hands touched her shoulders but then acquiescing as he pulled her to her feet.
She buried her face in his neck. “All this day’s been for you.”
“I know,” he said.
“Eating bologna. The restrooms. That A&P guy. It’s all been for you.”
He set her on her feet and, in a moment, she felt the scratch of the woolen army blanket across her neck and shoulders. She pulled the blanket up, covering her head.
“Let’s walk to the car,” he said. “I’ll help you.” He put his arm around her shoulder.
“I want something for me, Beech.”
“I know,” he said.
Underneath the blanket, flashes of sunlight played off her buckles. “Please, Beech. I want something for me.”
The car seat was cold against her legs where the blanket did not reach. She covered her eyes, the blanket a hood. The car door slammed. She listened for Beech’s footsteps but could not hear them. She waited and thought about dandelions.
“I like the dark,” she said. “I like it.”
She imagined her and Beech on the road again, driving. Beech would let her wear his cap. Maybe in one of the states that allowed fireworks, they could buy sparklers. There were footsteps, the flapping of wings.
She heard nothing.
She pulled the blanket tight around her face, the darkness warming her.
“I’m just going to stay right here. I’m going to stay—”
The rear car door opened and something slid into the back seat. Then the door slammed. The driver’s door opened and Beech’s odor found her. The engine kicked over, the radio blared, the car jerked forward.
Through the rise of Patsy Cline’s voice on the radio Ginny pretended the muffled cries behind her were pigeons cooing. She cuddled against the car seat, and wiggled her feet. She wanted to laugh but instead bit her bottom lip. Unable to control herself, she kicked and bounced her feet against the floor.
“It’s only for a while,” Beech said. “Then, I’ll take care of it.”
Ginny chuckled. She knew different. I’ll stop you, she thought. She kicked harder against the floor. I’ll blind you. I’m her secret mother. I’ll kill you.
She would take the blanket down and then look behind her, but not now.
The car shook, its skeleton jarred by ruts and potholes.
She would look behind her, but not now. She would wait until just the right moment, until she’d forgotten.
Then she would take down the blanket.
Then it would be a surprise.